Why does the Guardian keep getting it wrong on climate and developing countries?

The Guardian’s take on climate change action in developing countries is getting increasingly divorced from reality. Witness today’s report purportedly exposing a sinister plot by the European Union to dish out climate adaptation cash in return for favours in the international negotiations.

Some climate victims in a developing country

Pacific island states on the frontline of climate change are to receive €90m (£76m) in EU cash for climate-related projects in return for siding with the European bloc at international climate negotiations.

…runs the first para. Notice the conspiratorial overtones in the lines that follow:

The cash may appear small in EU terms, but represents as much as 19.5% of the nominal GDP of Vanuatu, and more than 12 times the GDP of the Pacific Islands Forum’s poorest member, Niue.

Such an injection of cash does not come without strings attached however…

What is wrong with this? Well, it’s almost certainly untrue, for a start. The Guardian’s correspondent Leigh Phillips (not John Vidal, for once) offers no evidence at all to support his contention that small island states have been bought off other than that the document outlining the funding will “require” (the Guardian’s words) “joint positions on the international stage”. So small islands and the EU have decided to work together. How awful! Don’t they know that rich countries are always the bad guys and must be constantly denounced?

The second rather bizarre contention is that developing countries receiving cash for adaptation must necessarily be evidence of nefarious political shenanigans, even when every development/environment group under the sun has been demanding increased funding to cover climate impacts and disaster preparedness for years now. Indeed, every NGO pronouncement on the subject predictably bemoans how little cash from rich-country blocs like the EU has been forthcoming to support the impacts of their CO2 emissions. Yet when the EU coughs up, this is spun as a corrupt sell-out by the poor, cash-strapped and politically-pressured small islands.

There is a pattern to this reporting, unfortunately. And it is one which reflects an outdated leftish ideological mentality about climate change mitigation and the role of developing countries – particularly the most vulnerable ones – within it. Back in December, when we were all at the negotiations in Cancun, the Guardian spun a cable from WikiLeaks as evidence that the Maldives had been bought off – at a price tag of $50 million – to support the US position on the Copenhagen Accord.

As advisor to the President of the Maldives, I have fairly privileged insider knowledge of the situation regarding both donors and the positions we take at the climate negotiations. So I can speak with some confidence in saying that the accusations were completely untrue. Not only has nary a penny been received by the Maldives from the EU or the US to date, but also there has never been any question of tying climate aid to political positioning at the international negotitions. “To suggest, therefore, that the US somehow paid-off the Maldives to support the [Copenhagen] Accord defies all logic,” complained the foreign minister, who immediately released all the relevant documentation to prove definitively that the accusation was untrue.

Underlying this, of course, is the wholesomely patronising assumption that developing countries – particularly small island ones – cannot think for themselves, and that any stance they take at the UNFCCC meetings other than an outright rejectionist one (the sort of posturing and victim-playing taken to an absurd extreme by the Bolivians at Cancun) must be evidence of undue pressure from the rich world.

In fact, the Maldives and many other developing and small island countries have decided for themselves – quite independently – that they can move from being victims to victors by taking the lead in becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral economies. I would have thought that the idea of the world’s most vulnerable nations taking charge of their own destinies would have had climate campaigners dancing in the aisles, but apparently not.

The ideology of many leftish greens has for so long focused on blaming the rich for climate change that any idea that the poor could act for themselves is fearsomely resisted as some kind of sell-out. Poorer nations are thereby victimised by those that purport to represent their interests, all in the service of post-colonial guilt.

Just as importantly, the narrative of poor-countries-as-victims seeks to corral all developing nations into a position which precludes any kind of meaningful alliance emerging between rich and poor countries to work on solving climate change together. This was the kind of bitter and divided atmosphere that led to the near-catastrophe at Copenhagen, an outcome which – had the process not been put back on the rails at Cancun – could have led to the collapse of 15 years of painstaking work to construct the climate regime.

It is no coincidence that the leak which destroyed any chance of a better outcome at Copenhagen came via the Guardian’s John Vidal. Once again, as an insider at the negotiations – at the heads of state meeting that drew up the ill-fated Copenhagen Accord – I emerged with a rather different perspective (also published, I should say, in the Guardian – no good newspaper is an ideological monolith). There is no point in re-opening old wounds now, particularly after things have been fairly successfully patched up at Cancun, but let’s just say that everything was not as it seemed in John Vidal’s original reporting.

The upshot is that most of the media – and campaigners too – have missed what is turning out to be the best climate-related news story in a decade, and the one which makes me more optimistic than for many years about the future of the UNFCCC negotiations. This is that there has been an epochal shift in the climate change narrative, from one where countries all insist that others must act first, to one where increasing numbers of nations are deciding to patch up their differences and act together – and stand to reap big economic benefits in conventional terms for doing so.

This is the Cartagena Dialogue – an under-the-radar informal alliance of more than 30 countries, rich and poor, which was co-founded by the Maldives early last year at a meeting in the Colombian city of Cartagena. Latin American voices are particularly strong in the Cartagena group, led by Colombia, Chile and the carbon neutral-aspirant Costa Rica. Just next week I will be attending a Cartagena Dialogue meeting in Malawi, where we will be discussing how we can make low-carbon development a reality and work together to break the impasse in the Kyoto negotiations.

This, ultimately, is how we can solve climate change – not by blaming each other for causing the problem and insisting that everyone else (rich or poor) should act before we do, but by working together as an international alliance dedicated by speeding up the transition to a low-carbon global economy. I can only hope that the Guardian stops trying to undermine this effort and starts supporting it instead – before some real damage is done.

5 comments

  1. Leigh Phillips says:

    Hi Mark. Leigh here.

    It’s funny that you keep sticking to the line that it’s white northern leftish greens that are the ones that keep making the argument that the sums on the table and those that are being handed out are not enough and that wealthy countries are playing hardball in climate diplomacy.

    I remember last year you were in the European Parliament debating precisely this issue with Martin Khor, the Malaysian head of the South Centre, the developing country think-tank and former senior UN official. So you know very well that there’s no ‘pattern’ here and that the perspective of concern about hardball climate diplomacy is not some figment of the imagination of journalists or your ‘leftish greens’, but from the developing world itself. They want to develop as we did and they have every right to do so. And to develop along a low-carbon path will be so very much more expensive than doing so in a dirty fashion.

    The point is not to lament that the EU is handing over this cash, but that the cash on the table from the developing world is so insubstantial compared to the estimated costs of developing on a green path, estimates made by that radical ‘leftish green’ outfit, the World Bank .

    Your pollyanna-ish view of how Europe engages in diplomacy is particularly charming at the moment given how over the last few weeks, EU leaders’ ties to the despots of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and much of north Africa has become so prominent and embarrassing that Sarkozy has even had to fire his foreign minister. (In passing, we can certainly add to that list of the EU’s dictator BFFs Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s hardman, who miraculously went from leading walk-outs of climate negotiations and raging against northern parsimony to embracing 100 percent the EU’s negotiating stand-point after a mysterious quick trip to Paris and talks with Gordon Brown.)

    This is precisely how the EU operates in every other area of diplomacy. Why should we expect the bloc to act any differently when it comes to climate negotiations and the profound and costly implications they have for European industry and society?

  2. Leigh Phillips says:

    Sorry – that one para should read:

    The point is not to lament that the EU is handing over this cash, but that the cash on the table from the DEVELOPED world is so insubstantial compared to the estimated costs of developing on a green path, estimates made by that radical ‘leftish green’ outfit, the World Bank .

  3. Mark Lynas says:

    Well, that’s why no-one should take lessons in climate politics from Martin Khor. He is the archetype of this old-style G77 politics, I’m afraid. And a growing number of developing countries – especially but not only those in the Cartagena Dialogue – are tiring of the victim-posturing urged by the likes of the South Centre, and wanting to do something positive.

    I absolutely agree that no developing country should lose development opportunities by opting for more expensive technologies to mitigate climate change – unless adequate support is received from developed countries for this purpose. But there are two points here: one is that you cannot demand assistance and then assert that this is cash for favours when help arrives.

    The second is that in many developing country contexts now going renewable is not more expensive than sticking with fossil fuels. My colleagues in the Maldives recently worked out that the country loses $150,000 extra every day for each $20 increase in the oil price. There is enormous energy insecurity in being dependent on imported fossil fuels, especially for countries where hard currency reserves are under pressure. Once you’ve got enough solar panels, to put it simplistically, the energy supply is free and indigenous – though up-front capital financing then becomes the key constraint.

    At a wider level, we are not going to solve this problem with rancorous recriminations and blame-trading. Why can’t we work together? That so many – and maybe not just on the left – want to undermine this effort in the service of their ideological obsessions is not just pessimism, it is verging on nihilism.

  4. Mike Owen says:

    From ‘ Six Degrees’ . The Pleocene climate would be almost impossible for the survival of man. We have the same level of carbon dioxide. The difference is the temperature which could rise by the additional three degrees existing in the Pleocene of three million ago within a hundred years. Why don’t we face up to this extremely serious threat and turn things around? The situation and the science should be made clear to all and action taken to save the planet. Are we , like the frog, in tragic dreamy denial.

  5. Ian says:

    Hi Mark

    It is unfair that you blame climate justice writers and activists for the antagonism that has historically existed between developed and developing nations at UN climate summits. It is more the fault of those developed countries which excluded others from important talks, failed year after year to commit to cuts, came up with plans that will cause temperatures to rise 4ºC rather than 1.5ºC, and promoted carbon trading that will dispossess billons of tenant farmers. If they had not done all these things that are so unacceptable to many developing countries, the antagonism would not exist.

    If countries are now leaving that behind and making genuine progress, everyone will welcome that. However if they are making commitments that fall far short of scientific recommendations, then journalists like Vidal have a duty to call them out on it.

    It is even more bizarre that you blame him for reporting on the Danish text. If they didn’t want this kind of controversy to erupt, they shouldn’t have written it the way it was.

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